A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.”

U.S. slogan for WWI youth gardening program

Spring is almost over, and with summer looming, people’s thoughts are turning to gardening. It’s no different with children. School and youth gardens are popping up all over. 

In most of the United States, now is the time to plant seeds and starter plants, while in the more southern parts of the country, gardening has already begun, with some early crops being harvested and eaten fresh. Some youngsters in those areas are also learning about canning and preserving practices. 

Shauna Henley of the University of Maryland Extension Service provides programs on food safety and nutrition. She reminds youth garden managers that when putting in gardens that won’t be ready for harvest until the fall, someone needs to be taking care of the plants and their environments during the summer. In other words: Who will water, weed, keep an eye out for animal intrusions, and harvest while school isn’t in session? 

Let’s start with some questions
No one is an island. That’s as true for school or youth gardens as it is in other life scenarios. It’s not as simple as finding a spot for a garden and having the kids plunk some seeds down. Not as simple as that at all, according to the experts.

Some questions that need answering include:

  • Members of the Secro-Woolley Boys and Girls Club begin the preparation work at the group’s garden.

    Where is the garden spot?

  • What was it used for before you decided on having the kids plant some vegetable seeds or fruit there?
  • What sort of chemicals were applied to it?
  • What is the lay of the land around it, and who uses it for what?
  • Will the adjoining land be sprayed for bugs, bacteria, or viruses? And how often and when in relation to harvest? 
  • What sort of weed control measures are used by the school or youth organization for the garden?
  • Are there farm animals close by?
  • How will the crops be watered?
  • Will nearby crops be irrigated with water containing various things such as manure and chemicals and will any of that water get sprayed onto the kids’ garden.
  • Was there ever a house in your garden spot?
  • Could there be any asbestos or other problem substances from the house in the ground?
  • What about wildlife? Will deer, wild pigs, or birds be traveling through the garden?  

These important preliminary — and often overlooked — questions highlight how important it is to be thinking about food safety right from the start. You don’t want children getting sick from dangerous bacteria such as E. coli, listeria, salmonella, parasites or other pathogens, some of which are naturally occurring in outdoor environments. They can contaminate the soil, water, and the plants the kids are growing and potentially eating.

Garden managers have to assess each stage of ground preparation, planting, growing, harvesting and eating with a careful eye. Fortunately, children love to garden and their joy in planting their own food makes taking all of the necessary food safety precautions — from start to finish — an easy teaching opportunity. 

“I love getting my hands dirty,” said Summer Samuel, a member of the Boys and Girls Club in Sedro-Woolley, WA. “It’s fun to see how it works. The plants go from being tiny seedlings to big plants.”

Last summer the club’s gardeners used some of their garden  produce — tomatoes, peppers and herbs — to make their own batch of salsa, which they proclaimed to be “delicious.”

“I knew where the ingredients came from,” said Samuel. “I knew they were fresh vegetables grown without pesticides. I knew it was good and fresh and healthy food.”

For Rosie Matsumoto, manager of the club’s garden, there’s a back story that’s equally as important as how much the kids enjoy gardening.

“When they start to garden early, they become more connected to where food comes from,” she said. “They think about what healthy food is and about the choices they can make.”

And for her that comes back to why she’s drawn to helping kids garden.

“It’s about health,” she said. “With obesity and heart disease on the rise, eating healthy foods is an important choice.”

Referring back to last summer’s salsa project, she said it was a great example of transferring a fun idea to an actual project.

“They loved it,” she said. “They took a lot of pride in it.”

But she also knows that instilling the importance of food safety into the young gardeners is important.

“Definitely,” she said. “That’s always important. Food needs to be safe.”

School gardens are rising stars
The USDA’ 2015 Farm-to-School Census counted more than 7,000 school gardens across the nation. The agency also reported that the percentage of elementary schools in the United States with school garden programs had seen a substantial increase — from 11.4 percent in 2006-07 to 26.6 percent in 2012-13. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t include gardens grown by youth organizations, churches, libraries, etc., in its census.

Looking at the United States as a whole, most of the school garden programs are in the West and the fewest in the Midwest. They were less common in smaller schools, rural schools and those serving predominantly poor students.

School gardens are growing in popularity around the world. This low-tech greenhouse garden is part of the kindergarten activities at a school in Kaunas, Lithuania. The greenhouse is sponsored by the Iki grocery chain and provides a protected environment that greatly reduces many contamination risks.

Taking a look back in the country’s history, gardening frenzy burst onto the scene after the Civil War and in the following years. The USDA estimated there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906.

In these modern times, school gardens are praised for not only helping students grow healthy food but also understanding where food comes from. As part of this, teaching students about food safety has become increasingly important.

However, as University of Maryland’s food safety specialist Shauna Henley told Food Safety News: “Looking at the school garden as a potential food safety risk is often overlooked. 

“When starting a school garden, no matter the size, adults need to see the garden as a great opportunity to educate students not only about where their food comes from and about nutrition, but also making sure the food on the table is safe to eat.

“A nutritious meal means nothing if it wasn’t grown and raised and handled safely.”

Jon Traunfeld, University of Maryland Extension specialist, said people are becoming “especially sensitive” about food safety and want to know how to reduce the risks. They’re coming to us for technical advice he said.

“Everyone is trying to think more about food safety. Preventing foodborne illnesses is so important. You don’t want to wait until someone gets sick,” Traunfeld continued.

Learning about food safety through school or youth gardens is a definite plus as far as he’s concerned.

“As the kids learn more about it, they carry what they learn over into their families, which is a good thing,” he said.

Don Alamban with the University of Arizona Tribal Extension programs agrees. He used  information he had on hand about the Le Pera School garden on a reservation near Parker.

“As part of that school’s gardening project, the students learn about the importance of washing their hands before cooking or eating food from the garden and of observing if there are any animal droppings in the field,” Alamban said.

Alamban was at the La Paz County Fair conducting a survey about people’s awareness of food safety. Producers and consumers are becoming more proactive, he said.

With that in mind, the University of Maryland Extension Service used a $5,000 grant to create a food safety program. It was crafted with input from the state’s Agriculture and Education departments, as well as with SNAP-Ed coworkers, who teach people to shop for and cook healthy meals.

It’s similar to other states’ guidelines as well as to USDA’s guidelines. In addition, some school districts and local health departments have created local food-safety guidelines about serving food grown in school gardens. Arizona even has a program that licenses school gardens that follow food safety practices.

The goal in all of this to steer people involved in school gardens toward food safety practices that keep the food safe and the students from coming being infected with with foodborne diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, 48 million people in the United States get sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. 

How does it happen?
Foodborne illness is caused by consuming contaminated foods or beverages. The CDC says that because many different disease-causing pathogens and parasites can contaminate foods, there are many different types of foodborne illnesses. 

Most foodborne diseases are infections caused by a variety of microscopic bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which are too small to see with the naked eye. Once on the food, they can enter a person’s system and cause mild to serious illnesses that sometimes  become life-threatening.

Common symptoms of foodborne illnesses are diarrhea and/or vomiting, which typically lasts 1 to 7 days. In the case of severe symptoms, medical care should be sought. Some foodborne illnesses can have extremely long incubation periods, such as Listeria infections and Hepatitis A, which can take 70 to 50 days, respectively, making them especially difficult to identify and treat. In some cases, other serious health problems can develop.

Food can be contaminated in many ways. A deer wandering the garden can leave droppings that can infect the food with dangerous strains of E. coli. Food sprayed with water containing manure can also infect the plants. And people who don’t follow good hygiene practices, such as not washing their hands after going to the bathroom, can also infect the food. Children who are sick can also contaminate the food, and that can spread to other children. Food put in unclean containers during and after harvest is another contamination route.

What’s surprising to many is that according to the USDA, contaminated fresh produce actually gets more people sick than contaminated meat and fish. And when it comes to children, that’s especially important to know because their immune systems are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses — and to suffering more from them.

Yet, as the USDA points out, if food-safety practices are followed, the chance of preventing foodborne illnesses is greatly reduced.

“. . . there are some microorganisms (germs) that can make us sick,” says a USDA brochure. “Through safe practices, you can reduce the spread of germs.”

The ABCs of food safety
In youth gardens the ABC’s of reading need to be merged with the ABCs of food safety. Youngsters need to be taught to combine the two skill sets. If you can’t read label instructions and safety guides, you can’t practice food safety.

While the USDA says that school gardens are great for kids in many ways it also says it’s important to make food safety a priority.

Here are some helpful food-safety tips from the University of Maryland, USDA, the University of Iowa, and other sources that provide information to schools and youth groups about gardening.


No matter how good a piece of land may look, make sure your garden isn’t near a dumpster, a septic system, a well, or an inground tank. Also check on underground pipes and wires. (School districts typically have information about this.)

Because vegetables grow better in well-drained soils, avoid low-lying areas where stagnant water can harbor bugs and germs.

Check out the neighbors. Are they spraying poisons on their plants? A fence line does not stop these poisons from traveling across a property line. Are there farm animals close to the garden site? If so, how sturdy is the fencing. Will it keep the livestock contained or will the animals be able to break loose and get into your garden, which they’ll want to do once the crops are up and growing.

What about wild animals. Is the garden site close enough to places where wild animals live or travel. A garden will surely attract them. If deer are a problem, you’ll need to put up an 8-foot fence. 

Is there a highway going by next to the garden. Because chemicals from gas or diesel exhaust can end up on the vegetables and fruits growing there, it’s better to locate a garden away from a major roadway.  


While all soils will have at least a natural lead level of less than 40 parts per million (ppm),  if the site has a lead level above 400 ppm, choose a different site. (Private and university labs can evaluate soil lead levels.)

Another option is “above ground” gardening. You can fill raised beds with soil that has tested safe from lead and other impurities. Most garden stores have bags of it for sale. 


Most schools use municipal water, which is safe to drink and therefore safe to use to water a garden. But if water from a well, pond or rain barrel will be used, test it for human pathogens such as E. coli and for lead. Water samples can be taken to labs for testing. This should be done at least once a year.

 Do not let kids drink water out of hoses because they can contain bacteria, insects and small animals such as snails and slugs. In some areas snails, slugs, frogs and other animals can carry the rat lungworm parasite.

While rain barrels are a good way to teach students about sustainability — using water coming off of a roof that would otherwise go into a ground — they are not advised for use on gardens. 

“In most situations no one goes up on the roof to check it out,” Traunfeld said. “Yet animals and birds (and their droppings) can be on roofs. When it comes to gardens, it’s best to be more (cautious) about using water from rain barrels for food plants.”

Watch out for the ‘well-meaners’

Many people like the idea of a school garden and some will want to help out. 

In a rural area, a farmer might bring in a load of manure as fertilizer. And while manure has long been recognized as a valuable source of plant nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, if it’s not properly prepared and used it can also contain certain E. coli bacteria and other human pathogens.

Also watch out for well-meaning people who want to spray the garden with pesticides, even if they say they are “natural,” as well as those who offer to apply fertilizers. Steer very clear of those who tell you food safety isn’t a problem with food grown locally or organically. When it comes to dangerous pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, organic and local produce is just as likely to be contaminated as conventionally grown if food safety practices aren’t followed.

Many people praise the benefits of compost for improving the soil and they want to help youngsters use left-over scraps from the garden to make it. But in the case of school gardens, the general advice is to buy commercially available compost since making safe compost is a complex process. Improperly prepared compost material is easily riddled with pathogens.

Keep it clean

It’s an exciting day indeed when it’s time for the kids to start harvesting their crops. But as “farm-like” as wicker baskets may seem, harvest containers need to be made of materials that are not porous.

According to guidelines from Iowa State University, food grade containers, plastic tubs, ice cream buckets and shopping baskets will work just fine, as long as they’re cleaned and sanitized before and after they’ve been used. What’s not acceptable are wicker baskets, cloth or burlap bags, used plastic bags, and new or used trash bags.

Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the World Health Organization

And it goes without saying that the children should wash their hands with soap and water . . . and even fingernail brushes . . . before and after picking produce. Paper towels should be used to dry hands and then turn off faucets.

Hand sanitizers, while useful, don’t do as good a job as good old soap and water. If only hand sanitizer is available, it should be applied liberally, rubbing hands until they are dry, followed by a second application and more rubbing, especially around and under nails. 

Once picked, vegetables and fruit should be washed in the clean harvest containers, using running water from the faucet in a clean kitchen sink or from a garden hose that has been flushed out by an adult. This water rinsing is to remove the visible signs of dirt. 

The harvest should not be washed with soap, detergents or other cleaners. Running cold water works the best.

In the case of foods with tough skins and rinds, like cucumbers and melons, a scrub brush should be used to wash the surfaces because pathogenic germs can find a home there. If you cut into them with a knife, the germs will be able to follow the knife into the flesh from the surface. 

Food that is rotting in the garden should be removed and thrown away in sealed containers to control pathogens and other pests.

Preparing the gardens’ bounty
Then comes the time to prepare the vegetables and fruit either for storage or for eating. Some vegetables, such as lettuce, peas, carrots, broccoli, and radishes, need to be stored at 40 degrees or cooler to keep them fresh and also to make sure any microorganisms that might be on them don’t start reproducing. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, dry onions, tomatoes and pumpkins don’t need to be refrigerated until they are peeled or cut up, but they should be kept in a cool place until use.

To maintain quality, it’s important to dry the vegetables or berries before refrigerating them.

Always have youngsters use a clean cutting board and clean kitchen utensils to cut the produce. And never let it get cross-contaminated by touching cutting boards or utensils used for raw meat or other unclean surfaces.

Again, experts say to make sure the kids have washed their hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling or preparing food and before eating.

The kill-step option
Garden managers who don’t want to take the chance of having kids coming down with a foodborne illness can choose to have them plant only foods that are cooked before being eaten, which kills the pathogens. These would include beans, peas, corn, zucchini, potatoes, and beets.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a free online food safety training program targeted to elementary students. The training includes four video modules that are each 3-7 minutes long with short quizzes at the end of each module.

Teachers and school garden coordinators can find activity worksheets and other resources, including answer keys to quizzes and video narrations, in the instructor manual, “On Farm Food Safety Manual: School Garden.” This curriculum can be found at www.safeproduce.cals.iastate.edu/elementary-program.

You can also contact college and university Cooperative Extension programs or your state or county health departments.

For more information about food safety in school gardens go here (www.wafarmtoschool.org/Content/Documents/School_Gardens_Food_Safety_Tips_-_Maryland_Extension.pdf) or go to USDA (https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/foodsafety_schoolgardens.pdf).

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